Director Robert Altman dies
Five-time Oscar nominee roster includes "M*A*S*H," "Nashville" and "Gosford Park."
A five-time Academy Award nominee for best director, Robert Altman won a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2006. (Evan Agostini / Getty Images)
Altman, who never stopped producing and directing films, died Monday night in a hospital in Los Angeles, a spokesman for Altman's Sandcastle 5 Productions Company in New York City said today. The cause of death was not disclosed.
In March 2006, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with an honorary Oscar, Altman revealed that he had undergone a heart transplant 11 years earlier.
"I got the heart of, I think, a young woman who was about in her late 30s," he told the audience. "And so, by that kind of calculation, you may be giving me this award too early - because I think I've got about 40 years left on it. And I intend to use it."
Altman, who had received five nominations for best director over the years but had never won an Oscar, told reporters backstage that he had kept the transplant a secret, fearing that "maybe no one would hire me again. You know, there's such a stigma about heart transplants, and there's a lot of us out there."
Altman had said that he viewed the honorary Oscar "as a nod to all of my films. To me, I've just made one long film."
Altman's latest film, "A Prairie Home Companion," an ensemble comedy with music based on the Garrison Keillor radio show, opened in June.
A former Kansas City industrial film director who launched his Hollywood career in television in the late 1950s, Altman became a major filmmaking force in 1970 with "MASH." A black comedy set in the Korean War, "MASH" memorably captured the antiwar and antiestablishment sentiments of the Vietnam War era.
New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael called "MASH," featuring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould as irreverent young surgeons with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, "the best American war comedy since sound came in."
It was chosen as best film at the Cannes Film Festival and was named the best film of 1970 by the National Society of Film Critics. It was one of the year's top box office hits and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best director and best picture - its sole Oscar win was for the screenplay adaptation by Ring Lardner Jr.
"MASH" contained elements that became hallmarks of Altman's filmmaking style, including a cynical, satiric tone, ensemble acting, improvisation, an elliptical, episodic narrative, a floating camera and a layered soundtrack with overlapping dialogue.
In a flurry of filmmaking activity in the wake of his "MASH" success, Altman made seven films in the next five years that were known for their variety, creativity and vivid characters: "Brewster McCloud," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Images," "The Long Goodbye," "Thieves Like Us," "California Split" and, most notably, "Nashville." Many consider "Nashville," his ambitious, song-filled 1975 drama that tells the intersecting stories of two dozen principal characters, to be Altman's masterwork. Although "Nashville" had its detractors, Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice called it "Altman's best film and the most exciting dramatic musical since 'The Blue Angel.'"
Writing in the New Yorker, Penelope Gilliatt noted that "technically and emotionally the film is a crowning work and a harbinger. This is one of the ways that films will go, and Altman will have been the first to be there."
"Robert Altman was part of the heart of modernist Hollywood, that period between 1963 and 1976 of enormous thematic and formal experimentation," USC film professor Drew Casper told The Times in 2005.
"Altman's films always dealt with things he disapproved of or didn't like: All the cracks in American society, American lifestyles - that's what he made his cinema about," said Casper.
Altman's filmmaking career, however, was a series of highs and lows. His immediate post-"Nashville" films included box office disappointments such as "Quintet," "A Wedding," and "Health."
"No one else alive," David Thomson wrote in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, "is as capable of a dud, or a masterpiece."
Film critic and historian Richard Schickel said Altman's career as a director "was an extremely mixed bag."
"I give full credit to the innovative qualities of his early movies, particularly 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller'; it's a very interesting film," Schickel told The Times today. "But going back to his movies, even his ambitious ones like 'Nashville' and 'MASH,' I find them nowhere near as interesting as I once did. They're kind of indulgent, kind of narratively very mixed.